Sixers' James Harden puts up jumpers, gives update on foot rehab progress

Harden puts up jumpers, gives update on foot rehab progress originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

James Harden enjoyed his on-court freedom Thursday.

He took jump shots with assistant coach Sam Cassell feeding him the ball as usual, tossed a football across the gym to Tyrese Maxey, and sat down to speak with reporters.

When Harden suffered a right foot tendon strain on Nov. 2, the Sixers expected he’d be out for a month. So far, according to Harden, his recovery is on the right track.

“I feel good,” he said. “On pace. Started slowly, ramping it up a little bit. I’ve been running on a treadmill with some resistance and things like that. I’ve been doing some pool workouts. We’ve got a plan, a script that we’re trying to stick to. Overall, I feel good.”

Harden did admit that he hasn’t stayed true to every line of the script. He wasn’t a fan of the protective boot the Sixers asked him to wear in the early stages of his recovery.

“(The pain is) going down,” Harden said. “I started off with a boot, but the boot kind of made my ankle and my foot stiff. So I took the boot off after maybe about four or five days. I wasn’t supposed to, but it wasn’t doing good. But yeah, just shooting, trying to get my bounce back with my shot and things like that ... and just keep building from there.”

Heading into Friday night’s home matchup with the Bucks, the Sixers have gone 3-2 in Harden’s absence. That includes a win Sunday over the Jazz in which Joel Embiid nearly joined Harden in the 60-point triple-double club. 

Harden soaked in the performance from the sidelines and teased Embiid for coming just short of his incredible outing as a Rocket on Jan. 30, 2018. He was puzzled by Utah’s defense.

“I don’t know why they didn’t double team him,” Harden said. “That’s the thing I was thinking about, as the opposing team. He had it going. I told him to get a 60-point triple-double. He couldn’t pass the ball.

“He just had it going, man. You could just see that bounce in his step that he had. Every shot was going in. He was making some really good passes, which kind of opened things up a little more for him to score the ball. But that was an overall MVP performance. And then defensively, he was just chasing everything on the rim. That was elite right there. That was one of the best games I’ve seen.”

The 10-time All-Star thought about how he can help Embiid keep reaching that level, too.

“I was trying to figure out, how can I get Joel to be like that every single day? What do I have to do to make him get there? Whether it’s me doing something or sacrificing, or whatever the case may be,” Harden said. “All in all, for me — and I know the entire team feels this way — it’s to win. It’s to be the last team standing.

“So (I’ve been) just sitting back and observing our team, trying to find ways to get guys playing at another level so when I come back, that doesn’t drop. It’s a little bit of a game within a game.”

While Harden said with a chuckle at one point that he’s “not a coach,” the time on the sidelines has meant more opportunities to instruct Maxey.

Over the past five games, Maxey has averaged 20.2 points, 6.0 assists, 2.2 turnovers and 3.4 rebounds. He’s shot just 34.9 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from three-point range.

“He had two or three games where he struggled scoring a little bit,” Harden said, “but he’s getting that attention now as the primary ball handler to where he has to do things that he can do, but he’s just not used to. I tell him to stay in that aggressive mentality. And if you miss a shot or miss two shots in a row, you have to have that mentality just to stay on them. Keep being aggressive, keep punching those holes.

“And then even when you get into the paint, since you’re the primary guy … there might be two or three (defenders). Before you attack, know where your shooters are so when you get to that paint, it’s easy to kick out for threes. So just those little nuggets, I feel like that’s the next development for him. And he’s going to get there because he’s in it, game by game.”

Harden would clearly like to join Maxey on the floor shortly, although he knows he still has steps to check off.

“The one thing I’m not good at — not just in basketball, but in life — is I’m very impatient,” he said. “Especially with basketball. Basketball has done so many things for me and my family, and beyond.

“Now it’s just patience, where it’s like, ‘All right, cool. As much as you want to be out there on the court, you’ve got to make sure your body is right to where they can get the best version of you.’ It is what it is. I’ll be back very, very soon, and go out there and just do what I do.”